Heritage Florida Jewish News - Central Florida's Independent Jewish Voice

Our time is desperate for civic education


April 20, 2018

I should have read “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglasss, an American Slave” before I turned 50, in high school or college, as it is as vivid a portrait of American slavery, the almost immutable triumph of greed over conscience, and the dehumanization of both slave and master as one could ever read.

I wonder about human nature, or make it my nature—how much of my comfort would I give up for conscience? A question as old as Noah, the ambiguous “a good man for his age.” Is the real insight that the triumph of conscience is the rarity, that a good society or epoch is the exception to a perpetual Hobbesian environment where the strong abuse the weak, nobody stops the bully and fear of loss of station, standing and wealth pin otherwise decent people into going along with the system?

“The Fragility of Goodness” by Tzevetan Todorov describes the rare societal uprising against evil; the Bulgarian Jews survived the Holocaust because the Bulgarians were the only Nazi occupied people to refuse a deportation order to send the Jews to the death camps. “Evil once introduced into public view it spreads easily, whereas goodness is temporary, difficult, rare and fragile.” It takes otherwise flawed people to be brave enough, to have the courage of conscience, to stop its spread.

We should ask why Douglass’ “Narrative” is not read together in high school with Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn.” Does the exclusion of Douglass’s “Narrative” illustrate our society’s bias in favor of the progressive white (Twain’s portrait of Huck kissing Jim’s feet displays the nobleness to be found in a black slave) over the portrait of Douglass who emerged from slavery against all odds to intelligently and evocatively eviscerate any myths about slavery and black inferiority?

While both “Narrative” and “Huckleberry Finn” are timeless in that they get at the heart of human character and societal nature, “Narrative” is especially relevant for our time. For example, listen to the ad hominem attacks and appeals to fear in our current immigration debate. Douglass describes being rented out by his owner to a Baltimore shipyard and observing that skilled blacks and whites worked together cooperatively for months until it was verbalized that more trades jobs for blacks meant fewer jobs for the whites. Douglass was then nearly beaten to death by a small group, as the majority of whites stayed silent.

This particular Barnes & Noble edition of “Narrative” was also made more interesting by appending contemporaneous 1845 reviews evidencing how American opinion makers perceived Douglass’s portrait of evil. Some struggled with “Narrative” because Douglass, a black as formidable a rhetorician as the greatest orators of the time, attacked sacred institutions, i.e., churches that preached clothing the poor and uplifting the heathen, but lent theological support to slavery and dehumanizing blacks by even forbidding teaching reading.

Douglass’s epiphany was education, realizing that reading was important when overhearing his master explain why it was dangerous to teach slaves to read. A meaningful tribute to Douglass would be to include books such as “Narrative” in our educational curriculum. “Narrative” reminds us where we were, teaches us the danger of dehumanization, awakens our consciences and causes us to think about our societal direction. In other words, this is civics and civics means a humane, functioning republic. Our time is desperate for civic education, and our silence on educational content enables the radical right and radical left to suppress speech, dictate content and otherwise defeat our American experiment of government by the people and for the people.

Daniel Coultoff is one of the top rated business litigation attorneys in Orlando, Fla. He specializes in construction law with Latham, Shuker, Eden & Beaufine, LLP.


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